Friday, August 26, 2016

'Kubo and the Two Strings' review

Laika has been on the scene for almost a decade now, and they've built quite the name for themselves. Established as a quirky, stop-motion alternative to the Pixar CGI style, the critically acclaimed animation house has released three films over the last seven years. And I must admit, based on the two films I had seen from the studio (Paranorman is still on my watchlist), I wasn't all that impressed. Coraline was gorgeously designed, but lacked a soul, while The Boxtrolls was a solid animated feature that lost itself at various times during the story. Laika has always created some of the most dazzling animation in filmmaking history, but I was still waiting for that movie from the studio that would combine great storytelling with exceptional craft. That movie has finally arrived.

Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika's fourth feature, and this time around, they're telling the story of a Japanese boy with magical powers and a complex family history. Kubo is coming into theaters as Laika's most critically acclaimed film yet, standing at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and 84 on Metacritic. And with good reason- this is another exceptional animated film in a year that has been great for the medium. Combining rich, vivid imagery with an emotionally powerful take on the hero's journey, Kubo and the Two Strings is a knockout and Laika's best film yet. Lyrical, elegiac, and exciting, this animated fable is stunning cinematic mythmaking and a powerful story that genre fans will return to time and time again.

As the film opens, we see a woman sitting on the shore of a beach. She's crying, and she looks bruised, beaten, and discouraged. Shortly after, the cries of a baby are heard coming from a nearby knapsack. It's her son. Along with her child, she walks up a nearby mountain and stays there, never to go back down. Cut to several years later, and her son, Kubo (Art Parkinson), is all grown up. His magical powers have grown, and during the daytime, he travels to the village to perform a show for the villagers. At night, Kubo returns to the mountain and listens to his mother tell stories of her past and his dead father, Hanzo. His mother tells stories of Hanzo's glory as a samurai, their intense love for each other, and the moment that Kubo's grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), took his eye and killed his father.

Kubo struggles to reach his father through the spirit world, and is constantly grappling with his magical powers and the legend that creates his family ancestry. One day, he stays out just a little too late, and ends up coming face-to-face with his mother's dangerous sisters (Rooney Mara). To save Kubo, his mother uses all of her magic to fend them off and transport him to a distant location. When Kubo wakes up, he's in a snowy landscape, far away from anything he's ever known. With evil forces hunting him down, Kubo will be forced to assemble three pieces of his father's iconic armor and confront his grandfather. But he won't be alone- he'll have help from Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), two loyal, trustworthy friends. Over the course of one epic journey, Kubo will be forced to follow his destiny in order to maintain his humanity and the legacy of his parents.

I could talk all day about the animation in Kubo and the Two Strings. Every frame is immaculate, brimming with color, awe-inspiring detail, and a genuine sense of wonder. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful films of the year, and although there may have been a few animated films that I enjoyed more, Kubo is surely the most stunning. Laika keeps getting better and better with each outing, with their latest emerging as a sheer achievement of technical power. In the past, they've dabbled mostly in the absurd and the fantastical, and although Kubo is definitely filled with some crazy elements, there's a level of precision to it that is jaw-dropping. The real-world landscapes are incredible, and this is such a step up for Laika that I can't wait to see where they go from here.

However, there's an unfortunate truth about the world of stop-motion animation that many seem to ignore- great visuals can only get you so far. Oftentimes that's my main problem with these kinds of stop-motion films. At first, it feels like Kubo will fall into that exact same trap. The first act is very tedious (although patient might be a better word), and I can see a lot of people losing interest right away. The pacing drags for a while, and ultimately, this is the biggest flaw of the film. However, slowly but surely, things start to change. The narrative threads established in the opening act begin to take on more significance to the plot, and the story picks up big time. All of the characters are incredibly fascinating, and it's a joy to see them interact. As Kubo progresses, it gains momentum like a freight train before moving to one of the best conclusions of the year, a powerful thematic statement unlike any I've seen in animation before.

Essentially, I loved Kubo and the Two Strings because it simply is one of the most devastating movies of the year, a poignant ode to humanity and a heartbreaking statement on death. It's one of the most mature animated films aimed at children that I've ever seen, and I think that much of the essence of what this film is about will fly over the heads of the youngest audiences. Kubo's relationship with his parents over the course of the story is downright magnificent, and I love seeing the raw power and emotion of the interactions between these characters. Speaking of the characters, Kubo is one of the best "chosen one" heroes in recent history. This is a narrative idea that has beaten into the ground over the last few decades, and many probably believe that there's no film that could do it justice in a fresh way. Kubo will make you change your mind. Ultimately, in a year where animated films have tackled isolation, religious zealotry, and race relations, Kubo's treatment of more abstract ideas (like mortality and humanity) is a welcome shift.

The voice cast is also stellar, and they're one of the reasons that this film works so well. Art Parkinson has starred in supporting roles in Game of Thrones, Dracula Untold, and San Andreas, and I loved what he did here as Kubo. In a cinematic landscape where most young protagonists seem like mini adults, Kubo feels like a real kid. Parkinson conveys a sadness and vulnerability at every turn, which is even more impressive considering he was standing in the shadow of two acting giants. Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey take on the biggest supporting roles, and I thought they were both mesmerizing. Theron is calm, collected, and intense, while McConaughey gets to inject his own dopey charm. Granted, the screenplay's twist with their characters is one of my favorite aspects of this movie, but they still knock it out of the park.

Kubo and the Two Strings is animated storytelling at its most creative and visually dazzling, crafting an entire universe from nothing but the imagination of the brilliant director Travis Knight. There are a few more problems than most seem to think, but there's no doubt in my mind that this is Laika's best film yet, and a film I will cherish for a long time. They're finally reaching their destiny as a darker, more philosophical rendition of Pixar, and I love that. If you're looking for a change of pace from the frenetic digital world of modern animation, Kubo will be a welcome antidote. It's a memorable and breathtaking journey, and another great film in an unusually strong August.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.6/10)

Images courtesy of Focus Features

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